Sex, old men and doner kebabs – ‘Walking Street’, the main drag in Pattaya, has all three in plenty. Prime time is between 10pm and 1am, and the street is clogged with young men trying to sell ‘ping pong’ or ‘sex’ shows.* Nobody is looking at them, though – they are here for a very different show.
*the two are very different – the latter is much more explicit – but fortunately everyone has laminated cards with pictures and set lists so you can decide what you want.
Pattaya’s ‘bar girls’ are, apparently, in certain circles, very famous. You know that stereotype of the ageing white man who goes to Thailand one time and ends up sending all of his money to support his ‘girlfriend’ out East? Chances are that girlfriend would be a Pattaya bar girl. There are literally thousands of women out on the streets of Pattaya in the evenings. Some are in the specially designed bars, with pens in the middle from which the women schmooze with the customers. Some are advertising ‘go-go’ bars (which I think are strip clubs). The rest of the women are already attached to a white man and they stroll down the street, looking attractive but bored while the white man looks…
Well, that’s the thing. If you haven’t already guessed, I am a white woman, and I can’t for the life of me imagine what is going through the minds of these men. I would be embarrassed to be them, if only to be obviously spending that much money on a hooker. If the women were good company I could understand it, I guess, but they just play on their phones… nonetheless, the look of the white man ranges from apathetic to ‘cat who has the cream’. Some of them seem genuinely thrilled to be in Pattaya, hanging out with a prostitute, being part of a symbiotic relationship of exploitation.
A girl came back to the hostel last night crying. She was overwhelmed by the situation outside. I had been pretty shocked as well – it seems so wasteful that so many of Thailand’s women are selling themselves in this way. Inside one of these heads there could be the cure to cancer, but the opportunities haven’t come her way and so here she is.
This, however, wasn’t why the girl was upset – she was concerned about exploitation. She blubbered to some poor Chinese woman about how an eight year old girl in Cambodia has been sold into the sex industry, or something. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure eight year old girls from Cambodia are sold into the sex industry… but there weren’t any out there on the strip. The women in Pattaya are in their twenties and thirties, earning a shit ton of money from strange fat white men, before they leave that life and carry on with whatever they actually want to do.
It’s easy to understate the sex aspect of the whole arrangement, and that’s not entirely because I don’t want to think about it. The main trade for these women appears to be as ‘holiday girlfriends’. They will partner up with someone, and then spend the whole week of the man’s holiday hanging out together – going to the beach, having picnics, going shopping… and yet, even in this simple relationship, the women aren’t generally very ‘attentive’, and the men don’t seem to care. I was in a songthaew (a shared Thai taxi) with one such couple and, since the taxi was busy, they couldn’t sit together at first. However, even when the taxi emptied out a little, they didn’t move to sit next to each other. It was very strange to me but, watching other ‘couples’, not unusual.
Even stranger, however, was the vibe in the taxi. The other passengers were families with children (quite why people bring their children here, I have no idea) and at first they were quite happy to share their taxi with a prostitute. However, as soon as they didn’t move to sit next to each other (and perpetuate the image of love?) the atmosphere turned quite nasty. Or maybe I was projecting…
A final anecdote: I went out on the town with a Chinese women whose English name was Vanessa. She was very surprised when I said that the men weren’t harassing me, but I was not surprised. The men would go up to her, introduce themselves, tell her they loved her… of course, the difference in appearance between the Chiense and the Thai people stood out a mile to Vanessa, the Asian woman: to a drunk European, they are exactly the same. From there, in this town, it’s only a short jump from ‘Thai women’ to ‘prostitute’, and so poor Vanessa was having to field old white guys through no fault of her own.
From my perspective, this was all quite fun, until the men started looking at me. What did they see? A white European, spending time with an Asian woman, talking nonsense and waiting patiently while she texted her friends or posted to Snapchat. In short, they thought I was one of them. It made me feel very awkward – but maybe I should have just embraced it. After all, while not bring a little diversity to this sad, tired, peculiar and intensely familiar little town.
NB: I didn’t take any photos on Walking Street because of the pick-pockets, angry bouncers and disrespect. The google street view here should give a solid idea of what I’m talking about!